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Forget the stars, awards and highlights, the Lightning had heart

John Romano | It was not a pretty game by any measure, but Tampa Bay’s three-peat hopes stay alive with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 6.
Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat, right, is congratulated by teammate Steven Stamkos after Palat’s first-period goal against the Maple Leafs in Game 6 on Thursday night.
Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat, right, is congratulated by teammate Steven Stamkos after Palat’s first-period goal against the Maple Leafs in Game 6 on Thursday night. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 13|Updated May 13

TAMPA — They are alive. Still. Barely. Remarkably.

Not because they were brilliant, and not because they were dazzling. They weren’t. Not because they dominated, and not because they overwhelmed. They didn’t.

The Lightning are alive simply because they refused to die.

They sputtered, teetered and nearly splattered against Toronto in Game 6 on Thursday night, but finally prevailed 4-3 in overtime on a Brayden Point putback goal.

And now, maybe, a team that has essentially glided through a season bereft of direction and description has finally stood tall enough to be noticed again.

“All we did,” Point said, “was buy ourselves another chance to keep our season going.”

Yes, they did. After two relatively peaceful journeys through the Stanley Cup landscape in 2020 and 2021, they are crawling across jagged ice to get out of the first round against Toronto.

You might think that’s unbecoming of a team that began the season talking of history, legacies and a rare chance at a three-peat, but the Stanley Cup does not include an extra ring for style points.

So what if Tampa Bay’s biggest stars have minus-ratings? And so what if the defense has given up three or more goals in all six games? This time of the year, the bottom line is the only one that matters.

For the first time in a long while, the Lightning were one shot, one mistake, one second from seeing a season end. And they stood their ground without blinking.

Now Game 7 is on the horizon, and the Lightning are still here.

“It was do or die, for us anyway, so just leave it all out there,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “You talk about sacrificing, you talk about doing the right things out there.

“It wasn’t pretty but it was a win and that’s what we needed to do.”

For the second game in a row, the Lightning blew a two-goal lead but it didn’t matter. As Toronto did in Game 5, the Lightning took advantage of penalties to get their offense back in gear with a Nikita Kucherov 5-on-3 goal with a little more than 10 minutes remaining in regulation to tie the score.

From there, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gave Tampa Bay a chance with critical stops during the first 12 minutes of overtime. Ilya Mikheyev had a point-blank wrist shot from the faceoff circle. Vasy made a glove save. Mark Giordano drilled one from near the blue line that passed a half-dozen bodies in front of the net. Vasy found it. William Nylander fired low and hard from 30 feet out. Vasy kicked it away.

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When the series is over and historians check the statistics, it will not look like a good series for Vasilevskiy, but he came through when the Lightning needed one of their stars to stand up.

“Obviously, Vasy made some huge saves for us, some really timely saves,” Stamkos said. “That gave us a chance.”

The Lightning were not flawless by any stretch, but they played with an urgency that hasn’t always been there. They had 60 hits in the game, including nine by Ross Colton, and they threw their bodies in front of 21 Toronto shots for blocks. Victor Hedman played for nearly 32 minutes and Anthony Cirelli scored the prettiest goal of the series.

“It was a best-of-seven, then a best-of-five, then a best-of-three and now it’s a best-of-one. We just have to believe in our group that we can get the job done when it matters the most,” said Hedman. “We’ve proven we’ve bounced back from losses time and time again. That’s what we do.”

There has been a nonchalance about this team that has been unnerving if not exactly infuriating during the regular season and even the first few games against Toronto. Every setback was dismissed as inconsequential because these guys have supposedly seen it all.

The core of this team was phenoms in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. They were world beaters in the 2018-19 regular season, and they were humiliated in that postseason. They have won eight consecutive postseason matchups, and they have prevailed against all types of attacks.

But even a seasoned locker room needs an occasional slap of reality.

That’s what this series has been for Tampa Bay. It’s helped the Lightning remember who and what they are. It gave them a chance to rediscover some of the qualities that made them two-time champions.

For the first time in a very long time, the Lightning were underdogs.

It must be said, they wore it well.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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